5 Oct, 2020
Software, apps and technology are the oil in your firm’s engine, keeping everything running smoothly. So it’s worth pulling out the dipstick once in a while and checking to make sure you’ve got the right apps for your clients, and your firm.
What is an app stack?
A poll from a recent Fathom webinar on app stacks revealed that while many firms are using a few apps, they’re yet to build a coherent integrated app stack. There was also some confusion around what exactly an app stack was, so let’s take a moment to explain.
An app or tech stack (the terms are used interchangeably) is a grouping of software applications that integrate together to perform a particular task or use case. Furthermore, app stacks come in two flavours. Internal app stacks help make your firm more efficient, while external or client facing apps are ones you either select for your client facing services or ones you recommend they use.
Challenges to evolving your app stack...
At Fathom, we speak to accountants and bookkeepers every day. On app stacks, the main challenges fall into three broad areas. Firstly, app overload. There are just so many out there how do you find what you don’t know? Secondly, even if I find an app that works for me or my client, I’ve still got to spend time evaluating and understanding it. And thirdly, even if I do that, how do I know it’ll really deliver value for the team or client when I deploy it?
Download: Advisable Guide to technology
Why create an app stack?
The answer then, is clearly to not bite off more than you can chew. So when it comes to researching and evaluating apps, start with the need (either the client’s or your own) first. You should always be clear on the reason for any new app and what problem it will attempt to solve.
It’s also worth noting that a high quality app stack and supportive processes behind it can be an attractive sell for prospective clients as you can deliver higher quality services faster and more efficiently. One once you’ve got clients, constantly updating them on the latest technology that can help their business means better client retention too.
Take a bird’s eye view of your clients business and look for the pain points.
Often a primary need is one of saving time; apps help do this by automating certain tasks and processes. Fathom for example, makes management reporting and analysis much easier than it would be with Microsoft Office tools.
Take a bird’s eye view of your clients business and look for the pain points. A good place to start is at transition stages – where one thing changes into something else (goods to revenue, enquiries to jobs, leads to subscribers, expenses to items). Finding specific bottlenecks or problems then allows you to find a technical solution to that problem. This can be in a client’s business, but also your own.
Internal v client facing apps
Here’s an example of an app stack from WeAreMAP, a UK firm based in Manchester that provides a full and systemised finance function to digital creative agencies. On the top are apps that they recommend to clients to use directly, whereas on the bottom, are apps they use internally to improve productivity and streamline processes. It’s important to recognise the difference.
W.O.M.B.A.T stands for waste of money, brains and time. It’s these three things you’re looking to reduce in both your firm and for your clients.
In a recent Xero survey, accountants were asked ‘What do you spend most of your time doing?’ and the top answer wasn’t ‘helping clients grow their businesses’.
The activities in these charts are perfect examples of bottlenecks and process failures. Furthermore, they are an actual inhibitor to future growth because there’s a finite limit to the amount of invoices or bank transactions a human can reconcile or chase. All the tasks are either repetitive, corrective or reactive (as in chasing missing information) and pretty much all of them can be outsourced to apps and platforms, freeing up staff to help clients in other more proactive ways.
Process for selecting an app stack
Firstly you should define and map out the process (and yes, there are even apps that help you do this, such as Skore App and LucidChart). You might start with post-it notes but pretty soon you’ll want to have these process workflows in one of the apps above.
Once you’ve identified processes and bottlenecks, e.g. too much time spent chasing debtors, you can then research apps that address that, and compare them.
Try before you buy
Nearly every app, including Fathom, comes with a free trial to help you evaluate it. A good way to draw up a shortlist to evaluate is peer review – namely apps on Xero Marketplace or QuickBook’s App Store that other accountants recommend. The key thing here is to use any app with real client data, that way you’ll know if it’s actually going to work. And if it’s really hard getting client data into the app, well that’s a negative mark against that app! Plug Xero or QuickBooks into Fathom and you can have a report generated in under five minutes.
As my Grandma used to say, ‘you get into a hot bath slowly’, and the same is true with apps. Announcing everyone is going to start using eight new apps on a Monday morning is a recipe for disaster. Instead, start with a few key apps and build out confidence internally over a few weeks before taking them to the clients. And based on your process research, design a roll-out plan that is achievable with your current resources.
Introducing apps to clients
Explaining, and in some cases installing, a new app with a client just got harder with COVID-19 introducing a limitation on physical meetings in some countries, so be prepared to think about how to do that remotely. But beyond that, you need to ensure the client understands that this new service helps you help them. It either saves you time so you can do more interesting things for them, or it provides you and them with some form of insight or guidance for their business. Of course by now you’re probably an expert on the app of your choice, but remember the client might be seeing it for the first time, so it’s important not to overwhelm them. Fathom users Robertson Scannell offer clients a topline dashboard of their financials at the end of their monthly compliance work, just as an introduction to the sort of reporting and analysis Fathom can do. That way, if the client is keen to find out more, they can start a conversation.
Fixed vs flexible app stack
You can split many firms' approaches to apps into two main camps – fixed and flexible. There’s no right or wrong approach to this, it’s dependent on the size of your firm and what clients you have. It works like this.
Fixed: Firms with fixed app stacks have a set suite of apps that they use with clients, and though they might update the apps within that list, they don’t often add new ones (you wouldn’t have two receipt capture apps for example). The pros are that the time you have invested maximises their benefit as they’ll know these apps inside out. Of course that cuts both ways and the con is you might lose business if a client has a specific need for an app or service that isn’t on the list. If this happens, it’s better to accept that you can’t help that client (rather than fudge a response from an app in your stack). If it keeps happening (i.e. several clients are asking for a particular thing), perhaps it’s time to update your list.
Flexible: A flexible approach means there is no set list of apps, and that you offer individual clients bespoke apps depending on their needs. Done well, this can be a really tailored and personalised experience for the client. Of course the downside is that it’s labour intensive for you to keep on top of (and pay for) a larger list of apps. Furthermore commercialising each app takes longer, remember your apps should be revenue generating for you, not a cost centre.
A rule of thumb is smaller and niche sector firms tend to go for the fixed approach, whereas larger firms, who have more resources, tend to offer a more flexible option.
There’s a whole range of apps, platforms and services out there that if chosen well, can really power up your offering and deliver additional value to clients, value that they will pay for. If you’d like more on using accounting technology and how it can help your firm start conversations around advisory, download our Advisable Guide to Technology now.
Written by Andrew Webb
Andrew is Fathom’s Content Strategist based in the UK. He has a background in journalism and has worked for companies like the BBC and HuffPost, as well as start ups in education and technology. Andrew has also published 5 food books and makes a great pie.